I had been following the news about monies coming to most of the North Country airports from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).There were also reports of grants being made, some of which I have since learned had been from the CARES Act of 2020, and from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP).
I wanted to better understand how our regional airports operate, how commercial airlines and their routes are selected, and how airports are funded. It’s an understatement to say that “it’s complicated.”
ADIRONDACK REGIONAL AIRPORT (SLK)
As a Harrietstown taxpayer, it made sense for me to focus on the Adirondack Regional Airport (SLK) owned by the Town. Located in Lake Clear, SLK is an easy, scenic 15 minute drive from downtown Saranac Lake. The airport is a commercial airport with service by Cape Air to Boston and New York City. SLK is also a general aviation airport, serves as the base for North Country Life Flight, an emergency medical air service, and is one of four New York State Police Aviation Unit stations. There is a flying school at the airport, Adirondack Aviation Academy with sightseeing flights, as well as Go Aviation, offering aircraft maintenance, management and charter flights. It is worth noting that SLK has an instrument landing system.
In view of the transportation challenges in the region, for example, the closest train station from Saranac Lake to New York City being Westport, the airport provides an important option. There is also the economic impact of jobs created by airport operations, including TSA and Cape Air staff, and revenue from visitors to the area staying at local hotels, eating out, and shopping. According to Rachel Karp, Executive Director of the Saranac Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, having a connection to larger metropolitan areas increases the accessibility of the area, especially with the addition of the Cape Air JFK flight. “We often hear from business members how essential the services the airport offers are to their business.”
The terminal is also the home of the Adirondack Aviation Cafe CAVU, a popular restaurant open six days a week. CAVU serves a hot breakfast as well as lunch, including fresh salads and sandwiches, with seating next to large window views of the runway. A fun fact I learned, CAVU is actually the acronym for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited (meaning a great day to fly!)
On a beautiful spring day at the airport, it isn’t easy to think about all the snow and ice that needs to be removed during a typical Adirondack winter. The ginormous snow plow, blower and runway sweepers at the airport are fun to look at. First the snow is plowed, the remains are then blown and finally the runway is swept. But the equipment is expensive, and as equipment has more electronic controls, it is increasingly expensive to replace parts. In addition, the FAA prohibits the use of salt on the airport’s runways, as it can damage equipment, and although there is an expensive alternative, the buildup of ice can close down the airport. In some ways, airports are like a small town, and SLK needs to be prepared for the possibility of a fire on the runway. Still some miles from the Village, the airport has its own fire fighting equipment.
FEDERAL FUNDING OF AIRPORTS
Revenue from the sales of fuel, plane parking and related services to private operators are a significant source of revenue to the airport. Harrietstown property taxes include an amount collected for the airport’s operating budget, currently 0.45564 per $1,000 of assessed value. There is also some limited support from local governments to help sustain the airport and while there is some funding by the State of New York, the federal government plays a major role in financing capital improvements and the purchase of expensive, specialized equipment. This year alone, the Infrastructure and Investment Act will bring an additional $295,000 to SLK.
The primary source of federal funds for airports is the Airport Improvement Program, (AIP) with a priority on grants for airport capacity and safety, and in part driven by an airport’s number of “enplanements.” An enplanement is a passenger boarding at the airport. The data is extracted from the Air Carrier Activity Information System (ACAIS), an FAA database that contains revenue passenger boarding and all-cargo data. An airport with more than 10,000 enplanements per year are primary or hub airports and those with more than 2500 and less than 10,000 are non primary, commercial airports.
Within the North Country, there is just one primary (more than 10,000 implements per year) commercial airport, that is Plattsburgh International. There are also four non primary, commercial airports: SLK, Massena International Airport, Ogdensburg International Airport and Watertown International Airport. There are commercial flights from all five of these airports, and most of the commercial flights are subsidized by the Essential Airline Service program.
Some common airport projects funded by the AIP are for runway improvements and lighting upgrades, and are generally related to enhancing airport safety, capacity, security, and environmental concerns. Within the AIP program, there are two pools of funds – entitlements and discretionary funds. The amount of entitled funds that an airport receives is determined by the number of its annual enplanements. Currently, for airports such as SLK with less than 10,000 annual enplanements, the grant is $150,000 per year. There are also discretionary funds that are awarded based on applications by airports for specific projects that fall within the FAA priorities, and are rated according to theNational Priority Rating program. These funds are competitive, and ultimately it is the decision of the FAA what projects are selected.
ESSENTIAL AIR SERVICE PROGRAM
Cape Air flights from SLK are subsidized in part by the Essential Air Service Program (EAS), which means that the DOT directly pays a subsidy to Cape Air to incentivize the airline to maintain service. The EAS Program was created during the Reagan Administration when airlines were deregulated, and some communities lost commercial airline service because the routes were not profitable.These contracts are usually awarded for a period of two years after a process that begins when the DOT posts a Request for Proposal. Only airlines that meet certain standards can apply. Ultimately it is up to the DOT with input from the local community to determine which airline might be awarded a contract and factors can include cost and the airline’s past performance. In turn, airlines that contract with the DOT, are by federal law required to provide at least 90 days advance notice if there is an intent to suspend service. Even then, the DOT might obligate them to continue service until a substitute can be found.
According to Corey Hurwitch, Airport Manager, Cape Air contracted with the DOT to service SLK beginning in 2008, with daily flights to Boston. It was input from the community that led to Cape Air proposing the now popular expanded service to JFK in 2022. With hope that the pandemic is now in the rear view mirror, the number of travelers through SLK as well as private planes bringing visitors is likely to increase to pre-pandemic numbers if not more.
I only scratched the surface of Adirondack Regional Airport, but it gave me a greater appreciation of complexities, including the impact of weather, the need to navigate federal and state rules, serve community needs, while also following a business model. I hope this article will encourage others to visit the airport and learn more.
Adirondack Regional Airport https://www.adirondackairport.com/
CAVU Cafe https://www.facebook.com/ADKCAVUCafe15/
North Country Life Flight https://www.northcountrylifeflight.org/
Adirondack Aviation Academy https://www.adirondackaviation.com/\
Go Aviation https://www.go-aviation.com/
Photo at top: Corey Hurwitch, Airport Manager, Adirondack Regional Airport pictured with the airport’s fire engine. May 6, 2022. Photo by Sandra Hildreth
Thank you, Linda. I didn’t know most of this.
I have read that Cape Air is a very “green ” company. I understand that they will be flying electric powered planes.
Thanks for a very informative column!
Joel Rosenbaum (formerly of Massena, NY)
The airport subsidies are essential for service to airports like SLK.
Equally essential is The Essential Air Services Program (EAS) which provides a subsidy to airlines serving small airports like SLK. Cape Air receives such a subsidy which I believe is $2,557,622 for this year. This works out, as I compute it, to about $2,342 for each Cape Air flight Boston- SLK, (in addition to the revenues received by the airline from users). See the DOT Administrative Order DOT-CST-2000-8025. The story of the EAS program, and particularly its administration, is a complex, controversial and a very political one.
The general story of airport success is often one of attracting airlines. The excellent Plattsburgh airport has attracted a number of airlines because it can offer cheaper US originating flights to Canadian users – it sometimes refers to itself as Montreal’s US Airport
I thought that media grabbing, anti government giveaways congressperson from the rugged stand on your own north country was against the administrations infrastructure program. But then I’m from New Jersey and I love your area and want it to thrive.
A very interesting article thank you. I did happen to check the airport website and the only scheduled commercial flights listed for Cape Air are to Boston.